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How India’s roads and railways are an elephants’ graveyard

The country is trying to protect its 26,000 elephants from the dangers of roads and other infrastructure as a thriving economy spurs development.

Elephants are often seen among traffic in New Delhi, the Indian capital. Prakash Singh/AFP Photo
Elephants are often seen among traffic in New Delhi, the Indian capital. Prakash Singh/AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // Alongside India’s burgeoning web of motorways and railway tracks, another network of underpasses and flyovers is emerging to accommodate a different species of traveller: the elephant.

The country is home to 26,000 of the elephants, and as the economy continues to grow, spurring development and expanding infrastructure, motorways and railroads are running into natural corridors of elephant movement.

These intersections frequently prove fatal, particularly in the eastern states of Assam, West Bengal and Odisha.

In West Bengal, 50 elephants have been hit and killed by trains since 2004. In Odisha, 15 elephants were killed by trains over the past decade, and another 107 have died by electrocution.

On the country’s motorways, speeding lorries injure or kill elephants as they cross the road.

To minimise such accidents, infrastructure projects have, over the past seven years, begun to construct underpasses and flyovers at these intersections — a solution that is not always regarded as wise.

In 2007, for example, a stretch of National Highway 152 was charted to run through the Manas National Park in Assam. Two flyovers were built to steer vehicles and elephants away from each other. More such flyovers have been constructed in the Rajaji National Park, in the state of Uttarakhand, and elsewhere in the country.

After a train mowed down seven elephants out of a herd of 40 in West Bengal in November, Jayanthi Natarajan, India’s environment minister, wrote a letter to the railway minister.

“If we can save scores of elephants from death, certainly slowing down of some trains at vulnerable patches should not be considered too great a hardship,” Ms Natarajan wrote.

Instead, the Indian government suggested plans to build even more flyovers for elephants, wherever their natural paths cross railway tracks. Similar underpasses and tunnels have been built in Africa, most notably in Kenya.

In December, the Supreme Court heard a petition by a group of wildlife activists about elephant deaths on train tracks, and directed government-operated Indian Railways to slow trains as they passed through forested areas, and to consider alternative routes.

Indian Railways, however, appealed the decision in January, calling for the constructure of more flyovers and other safety measures.

The appeal was rejected, with justices KS Radhakrishnan and Vikramjit Sen saying: “Why not put up a road sign as well to inform elephants about these safe passages?”

Ravi Chellam, a Bengaluru-based wildlife conservationist, argued that the responsibility lay upon the Indian government to reroute its roads and railways.

“Who came first? That’s my question to all of this,” Mr Chellam said. “So if the elephants came first, who needs to make the adjustment? If you have a private landowner and you want to build something through his land, after all, you negotiate with him. Whereas here it seems like nature is the one that always has to get out of the way.”

There are 88 official elephant corridors across the country. Forty of these have motorways ploughing through them, 21 have railway tracks and 18 have both.

Mr Chellam said he was aware of a pressing need for more road and rail infrastructure in India. Its highways are clogged at the moment, with average vehicle speeds being 35 kph, compared to 80 kph in the United States.

New highways are frequently held up by bureaucratic processes or funding issues. In the fiscal year ending March 2013, the National Highway Authority of India managed to award only 787 kilometres’ worth of new motorway projects.

India’s railway network is also old and under severe stress, necessitating upgrades and expansion. In February 2012, a government report on modernising Indian Railways recommended adding at least 10,000 kilometres of new lines over the next five years.

But these expansions must not happen through protected land, Mr Chellam said.

“At best, we have four or maybe five per cent of our land under protection for its wildlife,” he said. “We can’t afford any further fragmentation.”

Mr Chellam pointed out that underpasses were in no way perfect solutions. They disrupted the vegetal cover of the terrain, they planted pillars deep into the earth, and they released chemicals into the soil and water. The land, he said, was modified irretrievably.

“The sensible thing to do would be to push back, and to demand that you avoid this land altogether and find another route,” he said. “If you have to drive an extra 30 kilometres the long way round, that’s just the way it is.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae